Los Angeles has been home to a wide variety of foods and a varied list of museums over the decades, but now the two have combined.
The Disgusting Food Museum is a bold new step into examining what—and why—we eat what we eat, or why we don’t. On the global menu curated here, one person’s gag inducing entre is another person’s exquisite, five-star delicacy. Though the trick may be eating if before it crawls off the plate.
In the 1962 Italian documentary Mondo Cane, American audiences with traditional western palates and were exposed to scenes of upscale patrons dining on bugs and worms at a chichi Manhattan restaurant.
The freak show cuisine that stunned conventional tastes back then still plays today. Take Andrew Zimmern, the host of the Bizarre Food series, who can often be found on the Travel Channel putting some kind of genital into his mouth.
Take, for example, his reaction to dining at China’s first penis-only restaurant: “Mmmm…I gotta tell ya, the snake penis is much softer and less fibrous than I thought it would be.”
Yes, it’s bull penis. In China, it’s considered an aphrodisiac. Photo by Peter Gilstrap
And now, Los Angeles has its very own version of this shock value culinary display.
The nondescript brick warehouse in the arts district that the A+D Museum occupies is the new, temporary home to the Disgusting Food Museum, which comes to us from Sweden, where it opened in November.
The gallery offers 80 exhibits, delicate dishes set out on long white tables under soft museum lights.
There’s fruit bat soup from Guam, fried tarantula from Cambodia, and Sardinian maggot cheese. From China, you’ll see eggs boiled in the urine of virgin boys, and wine sweetened with drowned baby mice. And from right here in the U.S. of A., you’ve got your pork brains in milk gravy.
Step right up, folks. It’s the ultimate, all-you-can’t eat buffet. Or is it? Who’s to say what’s disgusting?
A Chinese monkey brain table. The live monkey’s head sticks through the hole
as guests dine on the contents of the opened skull. Photo by Peter Gilstrap
“The criteria for the museum are that the food has to be a real food,” says founder Samuel West, “so it can't be a novelty gag gift type thing like bacon ice cream or a beer made from sexy women's vaginal yeast.”
That’s a thing, by the way.
West is an organizational psychologist at Lund University in Sweden. He’s also known as Dr. Failure, thanks to his previous venture, The Museum of Failure, which examined products and services gone wrong. It was a success.
“So number one is that it's a real food,” he continues. “That's really important because I don't want the museum to be a freak show. And number two, it has to be disgusting. Now that's the debatable one. Like, who am I to decide what's disgusting? So, to make it in the museum it has to be a food that is mentioned or considered disgusting by a large amount of people.”
He may not want it to be a freak show, but each admission comes with a barf bag, as did cult film atrocities like Tomb of the Blind Dead, A Bay of Blood and When the Screaming Stops.
And in the Swedish branch of the Disgusting Food Museum, the bags are more than just a promo gimmick.
“We keep track of how many people have vomited,” he says. “So we're up to 11 vomits. We only count the real true vomit vomits, not the spitting in bags.”
If you’re keeping track, at press time, L.A.’s museum can boast 13 full-on vomits.
Andreas Ahrens, co-founder of the Disgusting Food Museum, displays a tin of fermented herring,
a traditional Swedish delicacy. To some, merely a rotten fish. Photo by Peter Gilstrapf
Andreas Ahrens started the museum with Sam West, and played a pivotal role in its creation.
“I’ve been running tech start ups for the last 20 years and wanted to do something fun, so me and Sam created this together,” Ahrens says.
The museum may not be hands-on, but it’s certainly mouths-on. Today, Ahrens is manning “the tasting bar, where visitors can taste anywhere from 8 to 10 different things everyday,” he says. “Disgusting foods, and [they can] broaden their palate a bit. We’ll have century eggs, stinky Danish cheese, fermented shark from Iceland and probably a couple of insects.”
But what about patrons with backgrounds from the countries where this allegedly “disgusting” food comes from?
“We get that every day, and that’s kind of the point of the museum, to get people to not judge other cultures’ foods as disgusting, but to think about what we eat that’s disgusting,” Ahrens says. “We get Chinese people in that say the Chinese things are not disgusting, a lot of Swedes that say the Swedish things are not disgusting, Australian TV was angry at us for putting Vegemite in there. So we get it all the time.”
Hi’ilei Hobart has a PhD in food studies, and teaches native and indigenous studies at Columbia University. She’s a native Hawaiian, and though she’s never been to the museum, her concerns for the exhibit’s sociological message go deeper than just denigrating Vegemite.
“It strikes me as really coming from a point of privilege,” Hobart says, “overlooking really long histories of colonial violence against black and brown communities whose tastes for foods, or limited access to particular kinds of foods, colonial metropoles have often designated as disgusting in a way to correlate ideas about cleanliness, intelligence, good taste and things like that.”
Cuy, a Peruvian treat, better known as guinea pig in America.
Before and after. Photo by Peter Gilstrap
It's all about spin. “I think what would be even more exciting and provocative for me is if they just rebranded museum altogether and made it a Museum of Delicious Foods and just kept all of the content exactly the same,” she says.
But that’d be like calling Las Vegas, A Place to Lose Money. Maybe it’s more accurate, but it’s not much of a come-on.
And on a Sunday afternoon, there’s a steady stream of people coming in, eager to huff some stinky bishop cheese, or gnaw some putrefied shark meat, or see a table designed to restrain a live monkey while its brain is being consumed.
There are families, couples and lots of kids, an ethnic melting pot of people clutching barf bags, but they seem far more fascinated than repulsed.
“No, it’s not disgusting, it’s unique,” offers Isha Sebastian, who came up from Orange County to check things out. “And it’s interesting to understand other people’s culture, like for instance, for menudo, we eat cow’s intestines, right? And there’s cow’s intestines in this exhibit, and there’s dog and there’s testicles and other items like that, so it’s not offensive once you know who you truly are, you know what I’m saying?”
Aviv Wilder is 11. He’s just taken a long look at the bat soup, which is a bowl of a soup topped with a dead bat. How does that grab him?
“I mean, I’m trying not to throw up,” says Wilder. “And maybe sample one or two things or more, but it is pretty gross, I must say.” He’s visiting from Glendale with his mother, Lihi Shadmi. “I think it’s good to be open to what other cultures are eating,” Shamdi says, “and just know that there’s probably something here we eat that some people consider disgusting. So part of it’s a little shock value, part of it is a good eye opener.”
Speaking of eye openers, video screens on the walls show continuous loops of animals being chopped, beheaded and punctured and drained of blood, all in the name of meal prep. By the way, this is not sponsored by PETA.
“I think it’s interesting to see how it’s done,” says Sarah Flanagan. She’s watching a striking video from Viet Nam that pulls no punches.
“This is the process of taking out a cobra heart, and they make a cocktail with vodka, and sometimes they eat it directly from the cobra so they split the cobra in half and take out the heart while it’s still beating,” she says. “This doesn’t disgust me as much as I thought. That’s surprising.”
“We as a species, we do pretty terrible things to animals,” says Ahrens. “We want to point a finger at, should we really treat animals this way for our own culinary pleasure? But the videos show moral disgust. We have moral disgust, we have disgusting tasting things, disgusting smelling and then the texture is disgusting for some things. But the moral disgust is quite strong for some.”
But West says certain essential takeaways rise through all those options of disgust.
“The reaction has been two reactions. One has been sort of a sad note. People who say like, they feel sad when they see how we treat animals and how short sighted we are environmentally. Why don't we eat more soybeans and insects? That's one aspect.
“And then the others, they see it as a celebration of human creativity,” West continues. “Like, we can find ways to eat anything. And I mean anything. Is it poisonous? Oh, let's just dig a hole, let it rot and then eat it. We're creative, and we find ways to eat things that other animals can't eat.”
Whether you believe the Disgusting Food Museum is pushing a grand Darwinian message, or making a plea for alternate food sources or is simply a sensationalized tour of spectacular gross-outs, things humans eat could always be worse.
And in case you’re wondering, in there among the ant desert and the roasted guinea pig and the bull testicles—sorry, Rocky Mountain Oysters—you’ll find Twinkies.
The museum runs through February 17.